Music Production Q & A With Gary Gray, Part 3 Of 3

Posted by Aaron Davison on Monday, September 10, 2012 Under: September 2012

Today’s post is the third in a 3-part series from producer Gary Gray.  Gary and I recently collaborated on a course all about how to produce music that meets the industry standards for licensing music in film and television.  Based on the feedback Gary received, Gary put together a list of the top ten questions he’s received, along with his answers.  Part 1 covered a detailed look at adjusting headroom while mixing in order to present the best product possible to Music Supervisors. Part 2 revealed detailed vocal recording techniques. This blog, the third in this series, covers Vocal Production Tips and Secrets, How to Record Guitars, Basses and Keyboards; as well as Midi Tricks and Tips, How to get a Full, Lush Orchestration Sound, and How to Create Pounding Electro Dance Mixes that you can sell to Music Supervisors.

Over to you Gary….

As mentioned earlier, the response to the course Aaron and I recently created has been incredible.

I’m getting excellent feedback from Indie Songwriters, Producers and Engineers every day; hungry to learn more about improving their mixing and mastering ability so they can make more money through licensing their music.  I can tell you now, after having collected information from around the world; the biggest needed and wanted by Songwriter/Producer/Engineers the world over can all be summed up in one word:  Mentoring.

Luckily, I have extensive experience - both being Mentored and in Mentoring others - and count Mentoring others one of my strongest passions. So I am very happy to help you in any way I can to Mentor you in your career as an Indie Songwriter/Producer/Engineer, so that you can share your music with the world and make more money through licensing.

With the approach of Mentoring in mind, I’ve made the final installment of this 3 part series quite detailed.  This is the approach I take with individual critiques and with the course itself so that you truly do get Mentored on Audio Production.     

Let’s start where we left off in Part 2, where we covered how to track (record) vocals correctly.  Now that you have your vocal track recorded, how do you edit, mix and master those vocal tracks in your home studio so it sounds like it was produced in a Major Studio?  (Note:  Further details are covered in the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money,” and if you have your own specific questions not covered in this blog series, you can get those questions answered with a Free Skype Consultation offered with the course. You will also receive 3 free detailed production critiques in writing by myself of your recordings. I am finding that besides being able to answer people’s questions, priceless research information is simultaneously being compiled on what Songwriters, Producers and Engineers need and want, thereby allowing us to expand our ability to help the music community through and This information is also being compiled for an extensive book on Home Studio Recording and Licensing to be published in the Winter of 2012. Stay tuned!)

(Questions 1, 1A and 1B Were Covered In Part 1)

(Questions 2, 3 and 4 Were Covered In Part 2)

5. Now That I’ve Recorded My Vocal Tracks Properly, What Can I Do To Edit, Mix and Master Those Tracks To Make Them Sound Like They Were Produced In A Major Studio?

Ok,  here is where we really roll up our sleeves and where you can learn some excellent secrets and apply some tricks and tips used by top pros – right there in your home studio

Let’s first talk about Analysis.

Analysis is the first of four steps in the “assembly line” of mixing.  The four steps are:

a) Analysis, b) Editing c) Effects and d) Relative Placement (precise volume, meticulous EQ’ing and exact panning) within the entire mix.  

After d) comes Mastering.

How does one do a correct Analysis of a vocal track recording? 

In order to fully understand how to do an analysis of your vocal tracks, one needs to first have an understanding of the Final Step; Mastering.  If you don’t grasp at least fundamental understanding of Mastering Techniques, you may not see the full picture and grasp the exact purpose for each action taken during the Mixing process.  Also, if you DO understand something about what happens to your vocal tracks in the Mastering Process, this will help you start to experiment with confidence in trying out your OWN approaches and signature styles to mixing vocals the way YOU want to hear them.  These steps will show you basic tools and how to use them.  But for you to become a craftsman with these tools, you need to experiment and try things out for yourself.  A musician sent me these great quotes: “If it sounds good, it IS good.” – Duke Ellington, and “You can teach the Science, but the Art has to be learned.” – L. Ron Hubbard

So let’s talk about what happens to vocal tracks in the Mastering Process.  What I’m about to tell you applies to 98% + of all mastering sessions.  There are a few exceptions --  a) The Mastering Engineer hears a mix and realizes that it’s perfect the way it is.  Rare.  But it does happen from time to time.  Or b) Where a Mastering Engineer ends up using only very very slight, almost imperceptible processing on a track (again, because of the exceptional quality of the mix).  Rare again.

So, let’s talk about what happens to 98% + of all mixes when they go to the mastering engineer and how this affects mixing the vocal track.  Due to mastering EQ, multi-band compression, limiting, mid-side technology processing (See #* for more about Mid-Side Technology), reverbs, stereo widening, Exciters (very slight specific amounts and frequencies of distortion added to create punch, brilliance, presence and warmth), and other effects, the vocals will end up sounding a bit different on the Master than it does in your Mix.  But how different exactly?  Usually, compared to the Mix, the Mastered version of your vocals will sound:

A bit louder than they are in your mix.

A bit brighter than they are in your mix.

A bit punchier than they are in your mix.

A bit more present than they are in your mix.

AND, any effects you have added to your vocals will also sound a bit louder, brighter, punchier and more present – such as Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Flanger, etc.

So, if you spend a lot of time in your mix trying to make your vocals sound louder, brighter, punchier and more present than good pre-mastered levels, you will end up with vocals that end up sounding TOO loud, bright, punchy and present. Annoying even.  

6. I have no idea what good pre-mastered levels on vocals should sound.  How do I know if I am anywhere in the right range of “good” or not???

This is the one million dollar question.  This is what separates craftsman mixing engineers from amateurs.  And there is only one way to really factually and actually learn the correct answer to that question for yourself.

It requires the process of mixing/mastering/mixing/mastering – back and forth and back and forth so that you experience the difference for yourself.  If you’ve never mastered before, do this: Once you have a mix, bounce it down to a stereo file.  Import that file into a new project called “(Song Title) – Mastering.” Bring up an EQ plug-in, A Compressor plug-in and a Limiter plug-in. Work those plug-ins, in that order, until you get your overall track to sound louder, brighter, richer, fuller and more punchy.  This is easier than you think.  Then burn a CD, along of your new master, along with a commercial track that you are familiar with in a similar genre.  Go out in your car and listen to that CD, comparing your track to the commercial track.  Repeat this process over and over again and you will now have the experience necessary to know how a vocal track should sound in the mixing stage, prior to mastering. (Refer to the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money” for details).

Whether your vocal tracks (this also applies to the lead instrument[s] in an instrumental track) are sung acapella (without any instrumental accompaniment or rhythmic accompaniment), or only to a click, or only to a single instrument, or to an entirely pre-mixed and mastered track, the first thing to do is an Analysis of your vocals. Hit play, turn your computer screen black, sit back and just listen to the track from beginning to end. Make sure you are listening to some type of a “mix” of the song; even if just a rough mix.  The mix should be decent enough to communicate the emotional message(s) of the song.

Believe me, this sounds so simple stupid; but it’s one of the hardest things to teach producers and the number of times I’ve had to tell people -- “please, just sit back down and listen to the entire track; just take it in and listen all the way through.  Don’t try to fix anything yet, just listen” – is amazing. Usually -- sometime after the first chorus -- the producer will jump up, stop the track and say something like, “Ok cool.  I know exactly what I’m going to do with this track. . . “

To become a craftsman one needs to be able to observe calmly and thoroughly. This step requires that you put down all your hats for a moment (Songwriter, Producer, Musician, Engineer, etc) and just wear the hat of average listener.

Not only will I listen one time to the vocals this way, but I will usually end up listening probably 5 to 10 times through the song, until I can just honestly start assessing my emotional response to this recording.  And that is what your Analysis should address at first:  Your OWN emotional response to this recording.  You are NOT analyzing the vocalist – you are assessing YOUR emotional reaction to the singer.  The course covers HOW to listen during this step – not as a songwriter or producer or engineer or musician – but as an average listener.  Not as easy as you might think. But a vital ability to develop.

7. What if I just completed recording the vocals, but I’ve got like 6 or 10 takes and several parts with even more takes than that?  Do I have to listen to every take?

Good question. No, not at this point, at this point just choose a single take that you feel overall was the best and just listen to that version. 

When done listening thoroughly to your track, and if you feel the vocals are up to the standards of working with on this song, take a short break and go back and listen again. 

Important: If you know that the vocals are not up to par for this song, do not waste any more time on these vocal tracks.  Have the courage to say, “not good enough.”  And either have the original singer re-do them or ask another singer to sing on your track. 

Once you have a vocal performance that you can work with, you’re ready to make a composite vocal track. NOW YOU WILL LISTEN TO EACH TAKE AND CREATE ONE “COMPOSITE” VOCAL TRACK  OF THE SONG ON ONE SEPARATE TRACK.  Rating each take will help you stay objective and accurate in improving the quality of your recording so that you CAN land a licensing deal. Now you are wearing the hat of Producer.

Once you are done stringing together the best takes on your Composite Track, listen back to the entire song from beginning to end. Take notes and rate the entire vocal track as it sounds to you at this point. The first notes should be general, such as “overall the vocal recording sounds rushed, a little bit anxious and rhythmically it just needs to “relax” a bit. Rating: 7.”  Or, “the keyboards and guitars are in the same frequency range as the lead vocal and it’s just hard to clearly make out the melody and understand the words. Rating: 7.”  Or, “The vocals actually sound really good, no other instruments are jumping all over the vocals in this arrangement and the vocalist did a really good believable job of communicating the message of this track from the beginning to the end. Rating: 8.5.”  Or, “It sounds like two different singers on this track – the verses are really passionate, but the choruses seem tired and low energy. Rating: 6.5.”  Or, “This vocalist honestly is not the right singer for this track.  The instruments sound awesome, but the quality of this vocal track, no matter what I do with it, will not at least match the quality of the instrumental accompaniment. Rating: 5.”  Or, “the vocal track is amazing, way better than the instrumental accompaniment.  Some things need to be re-worked on the instrumental tracks. Rating: 8.5.”

Keep those notes in a file.

Note: A secret to great vocal tracks includes the ability to listen to how the instruments around the vocals affect the overall sound of the vocals.  Recently, I critiqued a track where the guitars were mixed brilliantly – they sounded perfect.  The vocals, compared to the guitars, sounded muddy, like cardboard. On their own, the vocals might have sounded ok, but not within the context of this track.  In that case, we left the guitars totally alone and adjusted the vocals. Sometimes adjusting an accompanying instrument can actually affect the perceived sound of the vocals themselves.  So be aware of this and be prepared to listen to the relationship between the instruments and the vocals as well. Sometimes adjust one or both will give you the “sweet spot” you are looking for. These nuances are the ART of mixing.  This is something to spend time experimenting with and you will get better and better at it over time.

Now, to complete the Analysis of the vocal tracks, listen once again and this time, listen very carefully for the RHYTHMIC FEEL AND GROOVE of the performance.  Here is where many tracks fall down.  Here is where the best songs really shine.  “The Devil is in the details” is the old saying.  We like to say, “The Angel is in the details.”  Some of my newer students tell me they don’t know how to listen for the RHYTHMIC FEEL AND GROOVE of recordings.  They, for whatever reason, feel that since they don’t have years of experience, that they can’t do a good enough job at it.  So, I prove to them that they can.  I take the first phrase of the first verse and I play it for them.  I ask them, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how good is the RHYTHMIC FEEL AND GROOVE of this vocal performance.”  Every student answers me with a number. No one has told me, “I don’t know.”  This 1 to 10 rating system is the system I use to Analyze every aspect of a recording.  This rating system is totally simple -- and it’s extremely powerful and effective in helping you increase the quality of your recordings.  I learned this system from Jimmy Biondalillo, a hit songwriter from NY.

How to Edit vocal tracks correctly.

The most important aspect of editing a vocal track, assuming the performance is a good one, is making sure the RHYTHMIC FEEL AND GROOVE of the track is brought up to as high a rating as possible.

Make sure each phrase doesn’t rush or drag (without sounding robotic either).  Though this is a very short and simple statement.  It can sometimes take quite a bit of work and meticulous editing to do just right.  Each genre has it’s own signature Rhythmic Feel and Groove.  For instance, hip hop rap vocals and hooks, depending on the area of the country you come from, tend to drag behind the beat, some hip hop genres more than others – in a similar tradition to the horn lines in a big band from the 1940’s.  Listen to commercial recordings in your style of music and pay close attention to the Rhythmic Feel and Groove of the vocal tracks.

The next thing to edit is the volume of the track.  Yes, compressors are used to even out the dynamics of a track (making the softer portions louder and the loud portions softer).  But relying on a compressor only to do your work on the vocal track will lower the quality of your overall production.  Certain things in editing ARE a waste of time to do (the time invested does not increase the overall quality of the final product) and some things REQUIRE a time investment. Vocal volume requires a time investment. Some producer/engineers are either uneducated, too impatient or lazy when it comes to this step.  But this step, as I said requires the time commitment and hard work necessary to achieve pro standards.  Automation and plug-ins will not replace this step:  What you do is go through every phrase of the vocal recording, looping the section and letting it play while you raise or lower anything that needs to be adjusted.  And when I say anything, I mean even a breath here or the word “the” there.  Be careful not to only listen to the phrase you are working on.  I loop the section I am working on, and include a bit of the previous phrase, so I am always listening to the flow of the song.  Otherwise, you will get phrases that unto themselves sound fine, but when strung together, do not flow naturally. Secret:  As much as possible, Do NOT look at the screen during this process, only when you need to.  USE YOUR EARS ONLY, NOT YOUR EYES.  If you look at the screen your mind will actually falsely adjust what you are listening to while you look at the wav forms on the screen.

Important:  As you work, make plenty of “save as” versions as you go, noting the date and time on each saved version.  This ensures that you can go back to any previous version should you need to at any time.

Once you have adjusted the Rhythmic Feel and Groove of the vocal track and the individual Volume adjustments necessary, bounce the composite track down so it is one solid file, and not chopped up into smaller pieces.  Ensure there are no clicks or pops or edit sounds in the track.

Do NOT adjust the volume of the vocal track without listening to the overall mix.  Otherwise, once you pull your instruments up, you will have to do this process all over again.  That being said, it is always best to work on the vocal track editing last, after you have created a very good instrumental mix to work with.  Most producers make the mistake of working with the vocal tracks too early in the editing process.  Save it for last.

Now that you have the composite vocal track with the Rhythmic Feel and Groove nailed, and the volume of each phrase adjusted, now you can use a technique that will help you achieve that “Major Studio” production sound you are looking for.

This is called Parallel Compression.

The theory and practice of Parallel Compression:  The theory is that if you have several compressors operating independently from each other on your vocals, instead of just one, you can use slight nuances and colorations of each compressor to enhance your vocals in a way that no one single compressor could ever do, creating a presence, richness, punch and consistency that you hear on commercial recordings.

When we say parallel, we mean operating independently, and this is how you set it up: Take your composite vocal track, duplicate it 3 or 4 times.  Place an EQ on each of the duplicated tracks.  Then place a DIFFERENT compressor on each duplicated track, AFTER the EQ in the chain. 

You will also have an EQ and a compressor on your original composite vocal track as well. 

What you will be doing: One by one, adjusting the EQ and Compressor on each vocal track,  so that you can utilize the character of each compressor to enhance the overall sound of the vocals.  This is done in a way where you use just a little bit of compression on each track, and raise the volume faders of each track a little bit at a time, without overdoing anything here.  This has to be heard to really appreciate it.  Set this up and try it out, you will be delighted by the results!

Note: Make sure to group the vocal tracks into one group so that when you do find the “sweet spot” sound you are looking for, you can adjust the overall volume of your vocal track without destroying the relationship you took so long to establish among each compressed track.

Once this is done, you can then add a reverb and a delay, in that order to the overall Vocal Group Track.  When auditioning different reverbs and reverb settings, it’s also good to try more than one reverb, but again, don’t overdo it – a little bit can go a long way.  Depending on the genre of the song, I usually set one of the reverbs so that there is quite a bit of “pre-delay.”  Pre-delay can be thought of like this:  If you set 50 milliseconds of pre-delay, this is roughly the equivalent of hearing a sound bounce off of a wall 50 feet away, which is a good place to start when setting pre-delay.  Pre-delay allows the dry signal to attack first, without reverb and then, after a delay, the reverb then kicks in, depending on how long you set the pre-delay.  Often times I will go higher than 50 milliseconds which gives a very commercial “wash” and creates a very nice sonic space, giving your track a more 3D effect. 

Important:  With reverbs, listen closely to your entire track and, again, depending on genre, you usually want to have all instruments and the vocals sound like they are in the same room or venue.  You do this by using similar or the same reverb on things.  Don’t overdo it, because reverb cumulatively adds up, but too dry a mix, sometimes sounds 2 dimensional and boring, and most importantly, can stop you from getting that licensing deal you could get.

After you set up reverb, experiment with delays on the vocals.   The simplest foundation of a place to start with vocal production effects is EQ, COMPRESSION, REVERB, DELAY.  There are many other ways that sound great as well, but this is a good place to start.

8.  What is the best way to record guitars, bass and keyboards?

After working on recordings for more than 20 years, I can tell you the best methods for recording guitars that I know.  Eddie Kramer (Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, etc) was a pioneer producer/engineer who is one of the most respected guitar producers in the world.  A go-to technique that he developed is very simple, but allows you to make ample adjustments in the mixing process after your recording has been done.  Here is the technique:

The most important thing in mixing guitars is ensuring that the AMP SOUNDS GREAT.  This is subjective of course, but just ask yourself, does the sound fit the song and is it pleasant to listen to?

Use 2 Shure SM57 microphones (inexpensive – less than $200).

Place one Mic dead center right up to the grille of the amp (without touching) pointed at the exact center of the speaker cone.

Place the other mic near the edge of the speaker cone, at an angle perpendicular to the cone angle, so the mics will in an “X” position one over the other, one pointed at the center of the cone and one on the side of the cone, near the edge of the speaker (about two inches towards the center of the cone near the edge).  Record each mic into separate tracks.  What this will do is give you the best of both worlds on one guitar performance; you can mix the brilliant biting highs and the rich full mids and lows as you want them during the mixing process.  Also, record the guitar performances more than once in this same way, but re-adjust the amp to a slightly different tone for each performance.  When you mix, you can play with panning as well and get a great, wide, rich, full, puncy, present and distorted sound.

For acoustic guitars, try using the most sensitive mic you own, with the best frequency response placed just behind the picking hand of the player.  You will get an amazing balance of attack (not too much because the hand shields the percussive sound of the pick or fingers) and richness.  Point the mic towards the bottom of the hand for a richer sound.

For Bass Guitars, whether or not you mic the amp – Always record the bass signal direct in, through a DI box.  This will give you by far the best presence, punch and richness.  Also, see the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money” for important details on mixing the Low End, besides the vocals, the most important aspect, and the most frustrating, in achieving productions that will get licensed.

Keyboards:  Use Midi recordings as much as possible.  In this way, you can edit your performances much faster and with more precision.  The ultimate Midi technology comes from the company that invented Digital Audio Workstation Technology:  Steinberg.  Steinberg, owned by Yamaha,  makes Cubase and Nuendo.  Steinberg is years ahead of other companies in terms of Midi Technology, so it’s worth looking into.  (Yes, I am endorsed by Steinberg and Yamaha, but that’s because I need the very best as I am often under tight deadlines to to massive amounts of high quality work, and the only way to accomplish that is with the best).

But with any DAW, Pro-Tools, Logic, Reason, GarageBand, etc., try laying down your keyboard tracks with Midi.  I will be releasing a Midi Only class in the near future through, as so many Home Studio Owners use midi technology.  Stay tuned!

9. How do I get a full lush sound with orchestrations?

A great trick to use is this:  Even if you don’t own Vienna Ensemble or EastWest/Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings (very expensive programs), you can use any string sound you have and get great full lush orchestration sounds.  Do this:

Record the string part three separate times.  Even if you don’t have or don’t know how to record Midi, just find a good string patch and record it 3 times; 3 separate performances.

Take the first track and pan it dead center. 

Take the second track and de-tune it approx. 3 cents (flat) and pan it hard right.

Take the third track and de-tune it approx 3 cents (sharp) and pan it hard left

Experiment with the above parameters and you will get a great full lush sound from your strings.  The theory behind this is that when a string section plays, since each instrument is fretless, the strings are never 100% fully in tune with each other.  And that is where the beauty of a string section lies – to the listener it creates an awesome emotional performance that is rich and full.

10.  I work in Electro and Club Genres; how do I get a great commercial mix that can compete successfully and be licensed?

Electro Genres and Club Mixes require a knowledge of Side-Chain compression in order to compete and succeed.  In “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money,” these techniques are covered in detail.  The key things to know is that the kick drum can be layered on top of itself (same sound duplicated) or different kicks can be layered on top of each other in order to create the sound pressure necessary to pound with high energy on big systems as well as on computer speakers.  Make sure and increase the EQ at around 50Hz and 5,000Hz in order to get the Low End and the Punch happening on your kick drums.  Then, use that kick to side-chain the Bass track as well as other Pads and Keyboards.  This will give your track the “Pumping” sound that will compete in the market place so that you can become consistently successful in your bid to license your music.

So there you have it.  If you haven’t already, sign up for “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money” now!   And remember if you sign up for the course by the end of the week you'll also get a free skype consultation with Gary and three free song production critques, and these critiques are very detailed and provide specific advice on how to improve the production of your tracks!




“Hi Gary,

 Wow!!! Your critique is uber amazing. I deeply appreciate the mindset you just shared with me.

 t's a LOT to take in -- but that's what I want. I want to approach my songs in a professional manner.

 I've been wondering what kind of work ethic was applied with professional audio production.

Now I know.  And I know what it's taken for me to get to where I am as a singer/songwriter and guitarist. 

So why should it be any less demanding with audio production?


Gary, I think I understand my "marching orders" for the most part. I'll let you know if I'm confused about anything as I dig in. You are absolutely right about quality vs quantity.Man -- that is definitely some of the best advice I've EVER been given. Thank you so much :-)It feels like some kind of really cool major turning point in my life just clicked in.

- Davidson Yeager”



“I think this course is excellent and Gary is a great teacher. This is the best production info I have seen in a long time. I need exactly what Gary offers - to take my production skills to a more professional level. I'm fine with writing and performing. I've struggled with my engineering chops for years mostly because "I'm a girl" and was always told I needed a producer to do the heavy lifting. Not anymore!  I have a ton of songs, but they are not produced yet. If I can get them to a competitive recording quality I know I've got a good shot at getting some licensing deals. 

Many thanks to Gary for this wonderful, helpful information! Great job! He is helping me achieve a long-awaited dream :-) “


- Mary Shaw



“Thanks again for making such a wonderful course available.”

Allen Simpson


“Hi Gary,

Thanks so much for the critique!  Very detailed.  Awesome.

Take care,

 - Andy Gabrys”

In : September 2012 

Tags: music production  music engineering  music licensing 
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